FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The 2013 PG WWBA 14u National Championship opened here on Saturday, the first time in the event's seven year history that it will be played on the well-maintained and professionally manicured fields of southwest Florida.
The venues may be different this year, but the competition promises to be as strong as ever. Sixty-six teams are contending for the national championship and there's a pretty good chance this year's champion will also be a first-time PG WWBA 14u National Championship winner.
Last year's champ, the San Diego Show, didn't send a team this year. The East Cobb Astros 14u, a four-time winner at this event (2007, '08, '10 and '11) also did not send a team this year. Only the 2009 champion Dulins Dodgers have a team in the field. The no-shows did nothing to curb the enthusiasm of the teams that are participating.
"We're excited to come down to Florida and see where we stand as a program," Lehigh Valley Baseball Academy Prospects head coach Josh Hinkle said before his team faced the Carolina Cubs in its tournament-opener on Saturday. "We've had a great run to a couple of championships in the last two, three or four tournaments (we've played in) but obviously Northeast baseball is a little bit different than Perfect Game (national championship) baseball.
"It's going to give our kids an opportunity to really see where they stand on a national level and see the kinds of things we need to work on when we go back north to work on some things, so we're glad to be here."
The Lehigh Valley Baseball Academy (LVBA) opened up about six years ago in Allentown, Pa., with the idea of getting young prospects as much exposure in front of professional scouts, and college coaches and recruiters as possible and send them on to the next level; the organization fields about a dozen teams in age groups 10u through 18u. The core of the 14u team that is here has played together for four or five years, although not always as part of the LHBA family.
"Anytime that you can play competition that's above you, it's a great opportunity," Hinkle said. "From a player development standpoint, why would you want to go 5-and-0 and just run through a tournament as opposed to this. Maybe you go 2-and-3, but you learn about yourself and what you need to do as an individual to get your game to the next level and do those types of things. It's definitely not going to hurt us; it's only going to make us better, that's for sure."
The LVBA Prospects faced a Carolina Cubs team that has already enjoyed a relatively brief but successful history. The Cubs' organization has been around for about 10 years, and features teams in the 14u through the 17u age groups.
"We're excited to be here," Carolina Cubs head coach Jason Allen said Saturday morning. "You get tired of seeing the same old guys all the time. It's a measuring stick; coming to any kind of Perfect Game event is a measuring stick and that's why I tell the kids and I tell the parents, you go to the Perfect Game events to find out where you're at. You find out where the kids are, you find out where the other talent is in the country -- it's a great event."
Allen said Carolina Cubs teams have been regulars at PG events over the past decade or so and has enjoyed some success. They've had final four teams at tournaments in the past and the Carolina Cubs 15u team is coming off a 4-3 showing at the just completed PG WWBA 15u National Championship in Marietta, Ga.
The Carolina Cubs organization, based in Youngsville, N.C., brought two teams to the WWBA 15u -- the Carolina Cubs and the Carolina Cubs Red --with right around 26 players dotting the two rosters.
"It's a bit of a mixture," Allen said. "Between the two teams we've probably got 14 or 15 2017s and nine or 10 2016s -- a few of the 2016s just came down from East Cobb and came straight here. They're two talented groups and we expect to do well here."
One thing both the LVBA Prospects' Hinkle and the Carolina Cubs' Allen like about the PG WWBA National Championship events is the use of wood bats. Although they're young men dealing with players who are barely into their teens, they're old-school when it comes to the game of baseball.
"I wish we always played with wood bats; it forces you to become a quality hitter and not get all these dink hits that people get," Hinkle said. "... With the wood bat it gives us the opportunity to maybe try to execute some hit-and-runs, bunt hits, small game -- things that you might not have to do with aluminum where you put up 10 or 12 runs quickly and it's a completely different ballgame. Working on the small part of our offense will really go far."
Allen was definitely reading from the same page.
"I think it's a great thing," he said. "It puts the emphasis on pitching and defense ... and you're going to have to pitch and play defense, and the wood bat is a great equalizer. The BBCOR (bat) is a big equalizer, too, but with the wood bat here, it's going to come down to pitching and defense -- if you pitch well and play good defense you're going to be in every game."
Allen got some of that good pitching from right-hander Bryce Anders (2016, Goldsboro, N.C.) in the Cubs' 11-5 win over the LVBA Panthers on Saturday. Anders entered the game in relief and threw 2 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings with four strikeouts and one walk. Spencer Smith (2017, Rougemont, N.C.) and Colson Hunter (2016, Wake Forest, N.C.) both swung those wood bats with authority: Smith was 3-for-4 with a double and five RBI and Hunter was 1-for-2 with a three-run triple.
The defense let Allen -- and Hinkle, for that matter -- down a little bit, however. Both teams committed four errors, and only two of LVBA's five runs were earned as were eight of Carolina's 11. That didn't really dampen Allen's enthusiasm all that much.
"We brought two teams and they're split pretty evenly," Allen said. "We expect to do well; we expect both teams to do well. If they play up to their capability, we should be there in the last two days. That's a big if, so we'll see. They're 14 years old and it starts with pitching and defense, and you hope you come out and play well on the first day."
Both teams played a second pool-play game Saturday and will play one each day the next three days. The PG WWBA 14u National Championship playoffs are scheduled to begin Wednesday and the semifinals and championship are scheduled for Thursday morning (July 4) at the Boston Red Sox jetBlue Player Development Complex.